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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 8

A Familiar Face in an Unfamiliar Land

When I left Vienna many of the feelings that I wrote about in my previous post had given way to a general high-spiritedness as I boarded the bus to my next destination. I was headed to Slovenia, excited to get away from the urban region that I had been travelling through for weeks and eagerly awaiting the alternative experience that this on-the-rise country would provide. Ahead of me lay the capital city Ljubljana, as well as the exquisite beauty of lake Bled and its surrounding area. I was excited for a separate reason, too; for the first time in six weeks I was to be greeted by a familiar face as I was due to meet one of my best friends, Kieren, who had taken the opportunity of cheap flights to get away from the stress of his final year at Uni.

One of the four imposing statues that sit at either end of Ljubljana’s 'Dragon Bridge’

Before meeting Kieren I had one night alone in Ljubljana, and upon arrival the difference in my mood was noticeable! In contrast to the highly organised, prim and proper cities that I had been visiting in Scandinavia, Germany and Austria, Ljubljana embodied a laid back, Mediterranean vibe which I fell for hook, line and sinker. As a small city, its centre is focused on the river that runs through it, and as the sun shone and temperatures rose to close to 20°c an abundance of cafes, bars and restaurants were bustling all along the river side. Architecturally, the ‘Dragon Bridge’ – so called because of the four mythical statues that guard it – caught my fantastical interests, meanwhile the vibrantly colored central square was a beautiful place to eat an ice cream. That evening, I climbed to the city’s hilltop castle where I endeavored to watch the sunset. The walk up the hill was steep but not arduous, owing to my excitement at the ever expanding view in front of me. From the top, the castle which had seemed small from below rose imperiously above, and beneath its walls numerous people had congregated by some medieval ruins to look out over the old-town towards the mountains beyond. I perched myself on the ruins of an old wall, legs dangling over the side, and soaked in the atmosphere as the sun began to set beyond the horizon.

Ljubljana Castle with the sun low in the sky beyond

The next day brought more happy sightseeing, but the main event was by far Kieren’s arrival later that night. He arrived at our fantastic hostel – which, interestingly, used to be a prison (the room that we were staying in used to be a cell, and even had the names of some old inmates written on the door!) – at around midnight. By this point he had been travelling from Kent since early afternoon, and I had spent my evening watching Netflix in bed. However, as was testament to our excitement for the forthcoming days we headed out to a bar at 01:00 and had a long awaited catch up. It was 03:00 by the time that we were in our beds, and our alarms were set for a mere three hours later. We dragged ourselves out of bed that morning and set out to explore the courtyard outside of the hostel which was completely covered in some fantastic, albeit freaky, graffiti art; I then took Kieren up to the castle, and before long we were on our way to Bled!

A snippet of the fascinating graffiti art outside of our hostel

Upon arrival, we eventually found our hostel despite walking blindly past it about four times. It was yet another exquisite place: all of the rooms were well designed and clean, the kitchen was well stocked with basic ingredients, and the general vibe around the place was easy-going and relaxed. Moreover, it was rounded off perfectly by a rooftop terrace with a panoramic view of the surrounding hills. Having dumped our bags in our room, we set out to explore the lake and, specifically, to find the famous Ojstrica viewpoint. The lake itself is small. Ordinarily, it can be circled within a couple of hours, but we were stopping constantly along our way to follow paths leading up and down, and explore every possible vantage point from which to take artsy photos. It really is like something out of a fairytale; the water’s surface often lies pristinely still, reflecting like a pane of glass the forested mountains that surround it in all directions, furthermore, the solitary church that sits out on a tiny island in its centre, and the hilltop castle that sits above, complete the perfectly orchestrated scene.

Fairytale Bled When we finally reached the summit of Ojstrica, the view did not disappoint. It had been a steep climb up to the top and we both sat on the rocks to catch our breath; we could see the entire lake below and the glum clouds that had shrouded the sky for most of the afternoon had started to clear, too. It was a well earned reward, but the two of us both had similar thoughts. From where we were we could see that there was an even taller mountain adjacent to us, and both of us had been thinking that we should carry on up to it. Thus our climb continued onwards. The path got steeper the further we got, and by that late point in the day it had become exhausting on our lungs and legs, but coming across a heard of Alpine Ibex along the way spurred us on, and eventually we made it to the top of Velika Osojnica – albeit both drenched in our own sweat. It was amazing how an extra hundred-or-so metres of elevation had such a dramatic impact on the viewing perspective. Up at Velika the atmosphere was much more disconnected: we were sitting in a small clearing in the trees and – as opposed to the much more popular Ojstrica viewpoint – we were the only two people on the entire mountain (at least as far as we were aware). Having rested and taken in our surroundings, we continued the circuit around the lake, got ourselves some pizza and beer, and before long were fast asleep.

The next morning, we were up even earlier with one thing in mind - sunrise. Our alarms went off at 04:00, and we set out again. As soon as we had agreed to meet each other in Slovenia, watching the sunrise over the lake was confirmed as the main focus of our itinerary, and we wanted to give ourselves the best possible viewing conditions. We therefore hiked for two hours through the darkness of night to reach yet another viewpoint: Mala Osojnica. Once again the climb was rocky and steep, and made all the more challenging with only torchlight to guide us. I don’t think I am alone in admitting that we were a little bit nervy as we heard animals rustling about in the forest, and when we encountered a survival shelter in the middle of the woods I couldn’t help but imagine scenes from ‘The Blair Witch Project’; unable to resist taking a look inside, I was half expecting to see a solitary figure standing lifeless in the corner. Nevertheless, we persevered, and eventually we were both left speechless as we climbed to the top of the ridge and were greeted by the horizon exploding with colour!

We had made it to our viewpoint forty-five minutes before sunrise, and the resultant experience was a gift that kept on giving! The vivid spectrum of purples, reds, oranges, and yellows raged above the far-off mountains for more than an hour, all the while Lake Bled was slowly revealed to us in the foreground. For two hours we watched the sky transform before us, totally awed. I even admitted to Kieren that it had made my eyes water a little. Eventually more people began to arrive at our spot, and we both felt a sense of pride and arrogance when two others arrived, both visibly disappointed to discover that they had missed the sunrise, and then set off back down the mountain. For the rest of the day we were exhausted, and so we spent the afternoon in a beer garden overlooking the lake, accompanied by some well-earned Slovenian 'refreshments’!

Sunrise over Bled

Kieren’s stay was fleeting, but so enjoyable. It was brilliant to have one of my longest and closest friends alongside me. We pushed each other into challenges that neither one of us would have taken on alone and subsequently shared the rewards together, and being able to effortlessly converse about the things that we are both passionate about was refreshing. At a time when I had started to feel the isolating downside of solo travel for the first time, Kieren’s arrival was like an injection of adrenalin that put me back in the game and restored my enthusiasm for the final weeks of my trip, and I am incredibly grateful that he made the effort to visit me, when in reality he had very little time to spare (hopefully his grades don’t take too big a hit!). Kieren returned to England, but I decided that Bled was the perfect place to use as a basecamp for a longer period of time, thus I booked myself into the hostel for another 3 nights and spent the next two days hiking in the surrounding region. It is a great location with plenty of sub 1500m peaks to explore with relative ease and safety, but not far to the North and West lies the Triglav national park and Julian Alps, where mountains of 2000m and higher are perfect for more adventurous expeditions. Being by myself again, as well as the fact that it was still late winter, I opted to stick to the lower levels, but they were no less rewarding! First, I headed to the Vintgar gorge – a kilometre long chasm in the rock 100 metres deep, with vibrant emerald water coursing through it – only to find that the path was closed off during the winter months for safety reasons. It was disappointing, because the mild weather in recent weeks had all but eradicated all possibility of danger, yet the path still remained closed. Nevertheless, I was still able to see some of the gorge...

At its eastern end lies Slovenia’s largest waterfall (13 metres in height with water rampaging down into a glistening turquoise pool below), while I also found a footpath which traversed the top of the cliffs above the gorge. At times it became precariously narrow, and I found myself leaning into the solid rock on my left as I attempted not to look at the drop to my right, but my exhilaration when a train came hurtling out of a tunnel directly beneath me and across a bridge over the gorge made it worth the vertigo! From there I was able to push on up to the summit of mount Hom which offered unimpeded views across to Slovenia’s highest peak, Triglav, still blanketed in snow, before dropping back down into the gorge to read Dracula in the sun next to fresh running water.

I feel obligated to finish with a few words about Slovenia, because I think that they are well deserved. From what me and Kieren experienced, I can simly say that the country is fantastic. The cities are laid back, but still fun; the people are incredibly friendly, and seem to cherish tourism with such an eagerness that is hard to find elsewhere; the hearty food is simple, nutritious and tasty; the hostels were genuinely two of the best that I have stayed on throughout my entire trip; finally, the landscape is beautiful and diverse. All in all, it is a country that would be well placed on anybody’s bucket-list!



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